French secularism, in French, laïcité (pronounced [la.isiˈte]) is a concept denoting the absence of religious involvement in government affairs as well as absence of government involvement in religious affairs. French secularism has a long history but the current regime is based on the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State. During the twentieth century, it evolved to mean equal treatment of all religions, although a more restrictive interpretation of the term has developed since 2004. Critics do not consider it neutral but hostile to religion, whereas since World War II, some have seen the evolution of a “positive” laïcité which manages competing pluralities rather than serving as secular alternative to religion. Dictionaries ordinarily translate laïcité assecularity or secularism (the latter being the political system), although it is sometimes rendered in English as laicity or laicism. While the term was coined in 1871 in the dispute over the removal of religious teachers and instruction from elementary schools, the term laïcité dates to 1842.
In its strict and official acceptance, it is the principle of separation of church (or religion) and state. Etymologically, laïcité is a noun formed by adding the suffix -ité (English -ity, Latin -itās) to the Latin adjective lāicus, loanword from the Greek λᾱϊκός (lāïkós “of the people”, “layman”), the adjective from λᾱός (lāós “people”).
The word laïcité has been used, from the end of the 19th century on, to mean the freedom of public institutions, especially primary schools, from the influence of the Catholic Churchin countries where it had retained its influence, in the context of a secularization process. Today, the concept covers other religious movements as well.
Proponents assert the French state secularism is based on respect for freedom of thought and freedom of religion. Thus the absence of a state religion, and the subsequent separation of the state and Church, is considered by proponents to be a prerequisite for such freedom of thought. Proponents maintain that laïcité is thus distinct from anti-clericalism, which actively opposes the influence of religion and the clergy. Laïcité relies on the division between private life, where adherents believe religion belongs, and the public sphere, in which each individual, adherents believe, should appear as a simple citizen equal to all other citizens, devoid of ethnic, religious or other particularities. According to this conception, the government must refrain from taking positions on religious doctrine and only consider religious subjects for their practical consequences on inhabitants’ lives.
Supporters argue that Laïcité by itself does not necessarily imply any hostility of the government with respect to religion. It is best described as a belief that government and political issues should be kept separate from religious organizations and religious issues (as long as the latter do not have notable social consequences). This is meant to protect both the government from any possible interference from religious organizations, and to protect the religious organization from political quarrels and controversies.
Critics of laïcité argue that it is a disguised form of anti-clericalism and infringement on individual right to religious expression, and that, instead of promoting freedom of thought and freedom of religion, it prevents the believer from observing his or her religion.
Another critique is that, in countries historically dominated by one religious tradition, officially avoiding taking any positions on religious matters favors the dominant religious tradition of the relevant country. They point out that even in the current French Fifth Republic (1958–), school holidays mostly follow the Christian liturgical year, even though Easter holidays have been replaced by Spring holidays, which may or may not include Easter, depending on the years. However, the Minister of Education has responded to this criticism by giving leave to students for important holidays of their specific religions, and food menus served in secondary schools pay particular attention to ensuring that each religious observer may respect his religion’s specific restrictions concerning diets. To counter the traditional influence of Christian festivals educationalists in line with market forces have often promoted references to Santa Claus, Valentines and Halloween, particularly at primary school level.
Other countries, following in the French model, have forms of Laïcité – examples include Mexico and Turkey.
Contemporary French political secularism
The principle of laïcité in France is implemented through a number of policies. The French government is legally prohibited from recognizing any religion (except for legacy statutes like those of military chaplains and the local law of Alsace-Moselle). Instead, it recognizes religious organizations, according to formal legal criteria that do not address religious doctrine:
- whether the sole purpose of the organization is to organize religious activities (so that, for instance, the pretense of being a religious organization is not used for tax evasion)
- whether the organization disrupts public order.
French political leaders, though not prohibited from making religious remarks, refrain from it. Religious considerations are generally considered incompatible with reasoned political debate. Of course, political leaders may openly practice their religion (for instance, president Nicolas Sarkozy is a Catholic), but they are expected to refrain from mixing their private religious life with their public functions. Christine Boutin, who openly argued on religious grounds against a legal domestic partnership available regardless of the sex of the partners, was quickly marginalized.
The term was originally the French equivalent of the term laity, that is, everyone who is not clergy. After the French Revolution this meaning changed and it came to mean keeping religion separate from the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government. This includes prohibitions on having a state religion, as well as for the government to endorse any religious position, be it a religion or atheism.
Although the term was current throughout the nineteenth century, France did not fully separate church and state until the passage of its 1905 law on the separation of the Churches and the State, prohibiting the state from recognizing or funding any religion. All religious buildings in France (mostly Catholic churches, Protestant temples and Jewish synagogues) became the property of the City councils. Those now have the duty to maintain the (often historical) buildings but can’t subsidize the religious organizations using them. In areas that were part ofGermany at that time, and which did not return to France until 1918, some arrangements for the cooperation of church and state are still in effect today (see Alsace-Moselle).
Laïcité is currently a core concept in the French constitution, Article 1 of which formally states that France is a secular republic (“La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale.”) This of course does not prevent an active role on the part of the state (Presidence of the Republic, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of the Interior) in the appointment of Catholic diocesan bishops – see Briand-Ceretti Agreement. Many see being discreet with one’s religion as a necessary part of being French. This has led to frequent divisions with some non-Christian immigrants, especially with part of France’s large Muslim population. A debate took place over whether any religious apparel or displays by individuals, such as the Islamic hijab, Sikh turban, (large) Christian crosses and Jewish Stars of David, should be banned from public schools. Such a ban came into effect in France in 2004; seeFrench law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools. In the spring of 2011 there was a reinforcement of laïcité in hospitals, advocated by the Minister of the Interior, Claude Guéant, and in public service generally, by the official non-discrimination agency, la HALDE. The simultaneous broadcasting of the traditional Protestant and Catholic Lent Sermons (operating since 1946) has been interrupted. Earlier the broadcasting of the Russian Orthodox Christmas night liturgy was similarly stopped on 6/7 January.
The strict separation of church and state which began with the 1905 law has evolved into what some see as a “form of political correctness that made bringing religion into public affairs a major taboo.” President Sarkozy has criticised this approach as a “negative laïcité” and wants to develop a “positive laïcité” that recognizes the contribution of faith to French culture, history and society, allows for faith in the public discourse and for government subsidies for faith-based groups. Sarkozy sees France’s main religions as positive contributions to French society. He visited the Pope in December 2007 and publicly acknowledged France’s Christian roots, while highlighting the importance of freedom of thought, hinting that faithshould come back into the public sphere. Sarkozy publicly declared the burqa “not welcome” in France in 2009 and favored legislation to outlaw it, following which, in February 2010, a post office robbery took place by two burqa-clad robbers, ethnicity unknown, who after entering the post office, removed their veils.
In line with Sarkozy’s views on the need for reform of laïcité, Pope Benedict XVI on September 12, 2008 said it was time to revisit the debate over the relationship between church and state, advocating a “healthy” form of laïcité. Meeting with Sarkozy, he stated: “In fact, it is fundamental, on the one hand, to insist upon the distinction between the political realm and that of religion in order to preserve both the religious freedom of citizens and the responsibility of the state toward them.”  He went on: “On the other hand, [it is important] to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring to – among other things – the creation of a basic ethical consensus within society.”
Following March 2011 local elections strong disagreement appeared within the governing UMP over the appropriateness of holding a debate on laïcité as desired by the President of the Republic. On 30 March a letter appeared in La Croix signed by representatives of six religious bodies opposing the appropriateness of such a debate.
A law was passed on April 11, 2011, with strong support from political parties as well as from Sarkozy, which made it illegal to hide the face in public spaces, affecting a few thousand women in France wearing the niqab and the burqa.
State secularism in other countries
In Belgium, “laïcité” has a double meaning. It refers either to the separation between Church and State or the community of citizens that reject religion and follow a secular way of life, such as free-thinkers. To distinguish between the two concepts, this community is also called georganiseerde vrijzinnigheid (Dutch) or laïcité organisée (French).
Under the Belgian constitution, ministers of religion are paid with government funds. The constitution was amended in 1991 in order to give the same right to persons fulfilling similar functions (mainly moral assistance) for the nonreligious. Public schools must now offer pupils the choice between religion courses and courses in non-religious morals.
In Turkey, a strong stance of secularism has held sway since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk‘s Turkish revolution in the early 20th century. On March 3, 1924 Turkey removed the caliphatesystem and all religious influence from the state. Sunni Islam, the majority religion, is now controlled by the Turkish government through the Department of Religious Affairs, and is state-funded while other religions or sects has independence, though limited, on religious affairs. Islamic views which are deemed political are censored in accordance with the principle of secularism.
This system of Turkish laïcité permeates both the government and religious sphere. The content of the weekly sermons in all state funded mosques has to be approved by the state. Also, independent Sunni communities are illegal. Minority religions, like Armenian or Greek Orthodoxy, are guaranteed by the constitution as individual faiths and are mostly tolerated, but this guarantee does not give any rights to religious communities. Turkey’s view is that the Treaty of Lausanne gives certain religious rights to Jews, Greeks, and Armenians but not, for example, to Syrian-Orthodox or Roman Catholics, because the latter ones did not play any political roles during the treaty. However the Treaty of Lausanne does not specify any nationality or ethnicity and simply identifies non-Moslems in general.
Recently, the desire to reestablish the Greek Orthodox seminary on Heybeli Island near Istanbul became a political issue in regard to Turkey’s accession to EU membership. The EU considers such prohibition to amount to suppression of religious freedom. However, it is pointed out that if Greek Orthodoxy is allowed to reopen a school it will become the only religion in Turkey with the right to an independent religious school. Recent attempts by the conservative government to outlaw adultery caused an outcry in Turkey and was seen as an attempt to legislate Islamic values, but others point out that the legislation was intended to combat polygamy which is still common in rural areas, although not recognized legally. Also, as in France, Muslims are forbidden from wearing the hijab in government institutions such as schools (whether as teachers or as students), or the civil service. The ban in universities was briefly lifted in 2008, but reinstated by court order later that year.
Contrast with the United States
In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution contains a similar concept, although the term “laicity” is not used either in the Constitution or elsewhere, and is in fact used as a term to contrast European secularism with American secularism. That amendment includes clauses prohibiting both governmental interference with the “free exercise” of religion, and governmental “establishment” of religion. These clauses have been held by the courts to apply to both the federal and state governments. Together, the “free exercise clause” and “establishment clause” are considered to accomplish a “separation of church and state.”
However, separation is not extended to bar religious conduct in public places or by public servants. Public servants, up to and including the President of the United States, often make proclamations of religious faith. Sessions of both houses of the United States Congress and most state legislatures typically open with a prayer by a minister of some faith or other, and many if not most politicians and senior public servants in Washington, DC attend the annual Roman Catholic Red Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle regardless of their personal religious convictions. In contrast to France, the wearing of religious insignia in public schools is largely noncontroversial as a matter of law and culture in the U.S.; the main cases where there have been controversies are when the practice in question is potentially dangerous (for instance, the wearing of the Sikh kirpan knife in public places), and even then the issue is usually settled in favor of allowing the practice. In addition, the U.S. government regards religious institutions as tax-exempt 501(c)(3) non-profits provided that they do not overtly interfere with politics, which some observers interpret as an implicit act of establishment. Moreover, the military includes government-paid religious chaplains to provide for the spiritual needs of soldiers. In contrast to Europe, however, the government cannot display religious symbols (such as the cross) in public schools, courts and other government offices, although some exceptions are made (e.g. recognition of a cultural group’s religious holiday). In addition, the United States Supreme Court has banned any activity in public schools and other government-run areas that can be viewed as a government endorsement of religion.
The French philosopher and Universal Declaration of Human Rights co-drafter Jacques Maritain, a devout Catholic convert and critic of French laïcité, noted the distinction between the models found in France and in the mid-twentieth century United States. He considered the US model of that time to be more amicable because it had both “sharp distinction and actual cooperation” between church and state, what he called “an historical treasure” and admonished the United States, “Please to God that you keep it carefully, and do not let your concept of separation veer round to the European one.”
Proposal in Mexico
In March 2010, the lower house of the Mexican legislature introduced legislation to amend the Constitution to make the Mexican government formally “laico” – meaning “lay” or “secular”. Critics of the move say the “context surrounding the amendment suggests that it might be a step backwards for religious liberty and true separation of church and state.”. Coming on the heels of the Church’s vocal objection to legalization of abortion as well as same sex unions and adoptions in Mexico City, “together with some statements of its supporters, suggests that it might be an attempt to suppress the Catholic Church’s ability to engage in public policy debates.” Mexico has had a history of religious suppression and persecution. Critics of the amendment reject the idea that “Utilitarians, Nihilists, Capitalists, and Socialists can all bring their philosophy to bear on public life, but Catholics (or other religious minorities) must check their religion at the door” in a sort of “second-class citizenship” which they consider nothing more than religious discrimination.
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- ^ Sarkozy breaks French taboo on church and politics
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- One of the architects of the law against religious symbols in schools defends the liberalism of laicite in the Harvard Law Record
- The deep roots of French secularism, article by Henri Astier on BBC News online, Sept 1st, 2004
- Karakas, Cemal (2007): Turkey. Islam and Laicism Between the Interests of State, Politics and Society. Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), Germany, PRIF-Report No. 78/2007.
- Conference on Laicite and secularism